On Chinese New Year’s eve, arranged aesthetically on our dining table were all the Chinese dishes my family could cook to celebrate our reunion dinner.
In the middle of the table, surrounded by all the symbolic Chinese cuisine, there was a plate of big, juicy and delicious butter cereal prawns. A prawn dish signifies joy and happiness, a dish to remind us all to stay happy and always count our blessings while we go through the pandemic.
“Very nice and sweet,” my mum proclaimed while munching her second prawn. “Where did you get the prawns and how much?” a typical question an Asian parent would ask.
“South of Penang, Sungai Batu,” I replied, with broccoli and scallops still in my mouth. “I got it directly from a coastal fisherman over there before the movement control order. RM60 per kg.”
Still munching away their prawns, my brother and sister just nodded to acknowledge that it’s a justified price.
The prawns were the first dish to be finished that night. No surprise, it was the main dish, after all. I was glad that everyone enjoyed the prawns. As I looked at the empty plate used to serve the delicious prawns, it suddenly dawned on me that this might be the last batch of wild-caught prawns from Penang I would ever eat.
The Penang South Reclamation (PSR) project might spell the end of many privileges we have – as coastal fishermen and Penangites as well.
It is regrettable to hear that my state government wishes to go ahead with the PSR project, even though the coastal fishing community has submitted an appeal to stop the massive reclamation at their fishing ground.
Like the fishermen, I already can foresee this project’s negative implication – a higher price for wild-caught prawns and other seafood will ensue for the next 20 years (that’s how long the 1,821ha reclamation will take). If you think RM60 for a kilo of wild-caught prawns is expensive, wait till the massive land reclamation starts. The price could triple.
According to the detailed environmental impact assessment of PSR, the area of reclamation is indeed prawn territory. The loss of prawn supply in Penang is inevitable. Future and growing demands will drive the price up. Are Penangites willing to pay more for prawns in the future?
“Dad, for next year’s reunion dinner, would you pay RM180 per kg for prawns?” I asked him while he was eating his Chinese cookies.
He thought for a while and gave a positive reply, “We can always replace it with prawn crackers,” he laughed.
But dad-jokes aside, Penang is genuinely blessed with fresh and seasonally available seafood. That’s the beauty of living in a coastal state. Good quality seafood is accessible to all classes. So, it bewildered me when my state government decided to place our coastal fishermen’s livelihood on the betting table of development. Are we so desperate that we are willing to sacrifice all of that for the state’s economic wet dream?
I’m pretty sure that Penangites will still be able to get prawns when the land reclamation starts – maybe we won’t be able to afford the big ones any more and will resort to smaller prawns. Or perhaps we will also resort to getting our prawns from an antibiotic-laced shrimp farm nearby.
So, it’s likely that my family and I will still have our prawns for our reunion dinner next year. Just not the best ones.
As the Chinese believe, the significance of eating prawns on the eve of Chinese New Year is to usher in happiness and laughter.
However, I can’t help but sense the dramatic irony here – that our coastal fishermen friends in the south of Penang island will not be laughing like the symbolic prawn dish when the barge pours tonnes of sand into their sea soon.
Andrew Ng is a documentary filmmaker based in Penang
Source: Free Malaysia Today